Toi Jones, 17, of Homewood, juggles a lot—school, work, volunteering, and softball. The Pittsburgh Westinghouse junior spends most of her afterschool time at the YouthPlaces’ Homewood site located in the YMCA.
One day, about a year ago, University of Pittsburgh philosopher Jennifer Whiting approached her about “learning more about photography and taking pictures of Homewood.”
Jones was intrigued. So, she signed up for Rhyme and Reason, a new program designed to introduce teens in underserved communities to work in the Humanities. The program, run by Whiting and Pitt grad Malcolm Friend, gave her and 10 other young people each a brand new camera and a new vote of confidence.
“I always wanted to do something that I actually love. For the first time, I didn’t do something that my mom or grandmother told me to do. I learned something new and enjoyed it,” said Jones. “I learned you can take pictures of almost anything and find the art in it.”
Also for the first time, Rhyme and Reason participants welcomed more than 50 guests at the Ace Hotel, May 3, for an art show, “Old Roads, New Beats: East End Youth Tell It Like It Is.” After a year of learning photography and poetry, Jones, Darian Beck, Bibi, Rodney Dennard, Aaron Goshay, D’Nico Perry-Ellis, Anthony Robinson, Antoinette Robinson, Camron Scott, Yusef Shelton, and LeNell Terry premiered their best photos and shared their poems.
“It is really nice to see how excited the students are to share their work with people,” said Friend.
The May 3 show was also filled with a floor for freestyle dancing and a stage for singing and free speech. Community members and art lovers were able to see these images and poetry, displaying some of Homewood’s historical landmarks like Baker’s Dairy, Community Empowerment Association, and the North Homewood Avenue underpass.
“Through this work, I see myself as a Black, brilliant female,” said Jones, as she reflected over the program. “I see myself as a beautiful individual.”
In order for Rhyme and Reason to continue to make this type of impact, Whiting and Friend acknowledge that they need volunteers, room for expansion, and a new source of funding.
“Our aim is not so much to teach as to help the students discover their own talents and interests, and then to help them explore their talents and interests either by exploring these things together with them or putting them in touch with people better equipped to help in the areas they have selected,” said Whiting.
Friend, 26, added, “I hope that they have learned that there are a number of different ways they can tell their own story. And no one can tell them how to tell their story.”
While poetry and photography were the focal points for the first round of Rhyme and Reason, program creators hope to add philosophy, politics, visual arts, music, and history to the curricula.
“We are exploring the possibility of setting up an independent non-profit,” Whiting said, “devoted to helping local teens discover and cultivate their talents in ways that will carry them onward into adulthood and upward into stardom.”
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